There’s a good reason for that. I still love Second Life, and I still find lots to bring me back, time and again. For all the bells and whistles of the newer social VR platforms, I find myself coming back to SL for more.
In fact, I am going to make the argument that Second Life, at sixteen years old, is the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved virtual world. Whether through design, luck, or accident (and really, it’s a combination of all three), founding CEO Philip Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab created something that hundreds of thousands of users still use regularly, despite Second Life routinely being ignored or derided by the mainstream media.
Looking right now at the live Steam concurrency stats, if Second Life were listed there it would be in the top 10 games, between Rocket League and TF2. And we’ve been at that concurrency level for more than 10 years.
Much credit lies both with Philip Rosedale for his original, pioneering vision of what a virtual world could be (and some very smart early decisions, such as allowing people to create and sell their own content to other users). Much credit must also go to the current CEO of Linden Lab, Ebbe Altberg, who has capably and competently led his team through many changes in recent years, building on Philip’s foundation. (There were a few CEOs in between, too, but we don’t talk about those. 😉 )
We can take a look at where Second Life is now, today, for a glimpse at the future of social VR/AR/XR platforms and virtual worlds.
What lessons can we take from SL? I can list four off the top of my head.
First, having a well functioning in-world economy is CRITICAL. Once people realized that they could actually make money in Second Life by creating and selling content to other users, SL took off like a rocket. And you can bet that the newer platforms like Sansar, High Fidelity, Sinespace, Decentraland, and Somnium Space have all been busily taking notes based on that early success. Even VRChat, which lacks an in-world economy, effectively proves this point, by having a booming off-world economy centered around the making and selling of custom avatars. The lesson here is simple: either build a marketplace and an economy into your virtual world, or your users will build one around it anyway, in spite of you!
We can expect that newer social VR/AR/XR platforms will develop highly detailed working economies and marketplaces for user-generated content (including comprehensive item permissions systems), whether or not they embrace blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Second Life proved that this is a key, vital ingredient to virtual world success.
Second, it’s ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE. One of the reasons that Second Life has had such extraordinary longevity and success is that people have made an investment in the communities that they belong to. Whatever you are—a Gorean, medieval, steampunk, or science fiction roleplayer; a furry, a tiny, a Na’vi or a Bloodlines vampire—you have likely already found your tribe in Second Life! And that community is what brings people back, time and time again.
Also, Second Life has proven that people will spend a significant amount of time and money on customizing their avatars to their liking. There’s a whole industry built up around avatar customization, as even a brief glance at the SL Marketplace, with its hundreds of thousands of items for sale, will attest.
One of the reasons that OpenSim-based virtual worlds have struggled so much (with so many grids closing unexpectedly, like the rather sad InWorldz saga) is that they attract so few people compared to Second Life. You don’t make too many return visits to a grid when you can’t find anybody else to interact with. And this is where the network effect comes in: the more people who use a platform, the more people it draws in, and the more valuable that network becomes. Often (but not always), these successful growing networks were earlier entrants into a particular marketplace, like Second Life was.
And obviously, Facebook hopes that they can leverage their massive existing social network to give their upcoming social VR platform Horizon an advantage over competitors. If Facebook can get even a tiny percentage of their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users to move to Facebook Horizon and use it regularly, they will be more successful than any other social VR platform to date (even VRChat). Facebook has the resources to dominate markets and crush competitors, and they will not hesitate to use every tool and tactic at their disposal. However, as I have said before, innovative social VR platforms will still be able to survive, if they can offer something that Facebook Horizon cannot.
Third: The early adopters of the various social VR/virtual worlds are the best ambassadors and promoters of the platforms. Engaged, raving fans are a virtual world’s best and most effective advertisement! Savvy metaverse companies court these early adopters with varying levels of success.
And you alienate those raving fans at your peril! High Fidelity is unfortunately learning this lesson the hard way. The current level of ill-will surrounding the project, spread by former users who are highly critical of the various mistakes and failings of the company, is an additional hurdle that the company will have to surmount in order to succeed.
Fourth, don’t be too quick to judge or dismiss a platform based on early impressions! I love to share the following video with people who just assumed that Second Life started off as an instant success. It dates from 2001, two years before SL opened to the public, and before it was even called Second Life (back then, it was called Linden World):
It took Philip Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab years and years and YEARS of hard work to get to the point where it finally took off (around 2006-2007).
And likewise, don’t be too quick to dismiss newer platforms that still might be a bit rough around the edges. (And yes, I am as guilty of this as the next person.) Some platforms might not look like much right now, but they will likely also take several years of concerted effort (by the companies behind them and their early users), before they reach a point where they become successful, profitable products.
I have noticed in covering the social VR/virtual world marketplace on my blog that here is such intense pressure on metaverse-building companies to become “the next Second Life”. Platforms are often judged harshly if they do not immediately get high concurrent users figures right out of the starting gate. That is completely unrealistic. The smarter companies are playing the long game here: building a quality social VR/virtual world slowly and methodically over time, and slowly but steadily attracting an audience. That’s what happened with Second Life!
A perfect example of this strategy at work is NeosVR, which is doing some insanely creative things, like this most recent example: an actual working portal gun! I mean, just how freaking cool is that?
NeosVR is still not on a lot of people’s radar yet, but they are attracting more and more users who are very impressed by what they can achieve on this platform. In many cases, these are features that other social VR platforms are not even close to matching! That’s why I believe that NeosVR will have a bright future. As Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently said, build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.
So these are just a few thoughts. Examine Second Life carefully, and you too will gain valuable clues into what the mature, fully-evolved social VR/AR/XR platforms of the future will look like. You can count on it!
Note: to see my companion list of the top 20 controversies in Second Life’s 15-year history, please click here.
This is a purely subjective list of the greatest successes of Second Life over its 15-year history, sorted roughly in chronological order. Most were submitted by SL users in response to a question I asked in the official SL user forums, SLUniverse.com, and on this blog.
1. In-World Building Tools (2003-Present)
One could argue that the in-world building tools in Second Life were a key to its early success. Many talented virtual world content creators got their start by learning how to use Second Life’s prim-building tools.
2. The Second Life Economy (2003-Present)
When Linden Lab released Second Life in June 2003, the virtual world had no currency. It was only at the end of 2003 when the Linden Dollar was first introduced (source: History of Second Life). Shortly thereafter people began to create and sell goods to other avatars, and the Second Life economy was born. Today, over 5 million virtual goods are for sale in the SL Marketplace, and creators made over $68 million in sales in 2017 (source: infographic issued by Linden Lab on the occasion of their 15th anniversary).
3. Music, Clubs, and Performers (2003-Present)
From the very start, music, clubs and performers have been a vital part of Second Life. Some clubs have been in existence for over a decade; others come and go with changing tastes and styles. But without them, Second Life would be much less enjoyable.
4. Burning Man and Burn2 (2003 – Present)
BURN2 is an annual extension of the Burning Man festival and community into the world of Second Life. It is an officially sanctioned Burning Man Regional, and the only virtual world Regional out of more than 100 Regional groups worldwide. From the History of Burn2:
Burning Man, Second Life and the Early Years
In 1999, a dreamy guy from San Francisco decided to go explore this Burning Man thing he’d been hearing about. Into his car, he tossed a tent, water and everything else he needed to survive, then he drove 300 miles out to the Nevada high desert.
He arrived at a featureless, 40-square miles of cracked mud, ringed by distant mountains. Hot. It was terribly hot. Except when the sun went down. Then it was just plain cold. The Black Rock Desert is an ancient dry lake bed. “The Playa”, geologists called it; harsh, foreign, unforgiving and so shockingly barren that it *begs* to be your empty canvas. A strange encampment had been erected there, ringed around a 40-foot tall anthropomorphic wooden statue destined to be burned the last night.
What the Dreamer found there— a huge group of people, self organized into a city, collaboratively creating a different reality— tweaked the direction of the project he was working on back in San Francisco, and filled his head with ideas about the nature of reality, creativity, identity and community. He worked some of these ideas into the very fabric of his project “Linden World”, which you and I now know as Second Life. That Dreamer was our Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale.
The Virtual Burn
Fast forward to 2003. Numerous Linden Lab employees were regulars at Burning Man, but by 2003 they were too busy getting Second Life out the door to visit the real life Playa. So Phoenix Linden approached the Burning Man organization for permission to build a tribute to the real event in Second Life. With permission duly granted, the Lindens built a Man statue much like the real thing, and “burned” it in-world. While Phoneix Linden (and Haney Linden)- started the Burning Life event, other Lindens facilitated over the years: Hamlet, Torley, Jeska, Iridium, and Everett.
By 2007 the Lindens were too busy to be directly involved with the event, and other SLers were running the event. These residents had never been to Burning Man and did not really understand how to represent its principles – yet they were using Burning Man’s symbols and vocabulary, and representing it inworld.
Increased Burning Man Involvement
Understandably, Burning Man was becoming concerned about what was happening to the vibe, the message, the community and it’s principles as represented and enacted by Burning Life. It was decided that sending help and getting involved was the Burner way to improve the event.
Everett Linden, the head of Community Initiatives for LL (and also a Burner), was aware of the issues involved. In 2008, the Lab hired Dusty Udal, an experienced burner, as a contractor and gave her a Linden name tag in order to help reposition the event. Also at this time, Danger Ranger – founder of the real life Black Rock Rangers at Burning Man – got involved and helped with reorganizing the Burning Life Rangers into a more community-based organization, truer to the principles of the RL Rangers.
In 2010, Linden Lab experienced a sharp downsizing, and ownership of Burning Life was transformed from a partnership between Burning Man and Linden Lab into an entirely regional Burning Man event held in the metaverse. This was seen as a win-win, as Linden Lab was focusing on it’s core business and technology, and less on suplementary activities, while Burning Man wanted a higher fidelity representation in the metaverse.
If you look at the history of BM, it has also undergone a dramatic shift. 1996 was an evolutionary year for BM. After that, BM found a balance between anarchy and organization. In a sense, BURN2 is where Burning Man was in 1997. We are establishing a firm base for evolution and growth in the future.
With the birth of Burn2, there is a sense of renewal, a sense of community and a sense of hope as Burning Man and the metaverse intermix. The Burn2 community is established and viable, and the future is at our doorstep.
6. Anshe Chung: Second Life’s First Millionaire (2006)
On May 1st, 2006, Businessweek magazine featured SL entrepreneur Anshe Chung on its cover. Here’s a blurb from the press release she issued soon afterward, as reported by the Alphaville Herald:
Anshe Chung has become the first online personality to achieve a net worth exceeding one million US dollars from profits entirely earned inside a virtual world.
Recently featured on the cover of Business Week Magazine, Anshe Chung is a resident in the virtual world Second Life. Inside Second Life, Anshe buys and develops virtual real-estate in an official currency, known as Linden Dollars, which is convertible to US Dollars. There is also a liquid market in virtual real estate, making it possible to assess the value of her total holdings using publicly available statistics.
The fortune Anshe Chung commands in Second Life includes virtual real estate that is equivalent to 36 square kilometers of land – this property is supported by 550 servers or land “simulators”. In addition to her virtual real estate holdings, Anshe has “cash” holdings of several million Linden Dollars, several virtual shopping malls, virtual store chains, and she has established several virtual brands in Second Life. She also has significant virtual stock market investments in Second Life companies.
Anshe Chung’s achievement is all the more remarkable because the fortune was developed over a period of two and a half years from an initial investment of $9.95 for a Second Life account by Anshe’s creator, Ailin Graef. Anshe/Ailin achieved her fortune by beginning with small scale purchases of virtual real estate which she then subdivided and developed with landscaping and themed architectural builds for rental and resale. Her operations have since grown to include the development and sale of properties for large scale real world corporations, and have led to a real life “spin off” corporation called Anshe Chung Studios, which develops immersive 3D environments for applications ranging from education to business conferencing and product prototyping.
It can be argued that this Businessweek article, and the resulting media attention it caused, was the spark that ignited a period of explosive population growth in Second Life, as people realized that they, too, could earn money on Second Life, and began joining the platform in ever-increasing numbers.
7. Stroker Serpentine, Virtual Law Pioneer (2007)
Lenni Foxtrot nominated Stroker Serpentine for this list, saying:
He fought for the rights to our own intellectual property, in RL, and won! He also a terrific guy that makes a great sex bed!
As as result of Alderman’s “Sex Bed Case”, many lawyers and firms such as Francis Taney of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, who represented Alderman in his landmark case(s), have created teams of attorneys and legal analysts devoted specifically to “Virtual Law”. Virtual law encompasses the application of intellectual property law (copyright, trademark, and patent), criminal law, property law, contract law, securities law, tax law, and civil procedure as it relates to content creation, developmental considerations and micro-economies of virtual worlds.
In April of 2008 Benjamin Duranske of the Pillsbury law firm published “Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds”, relying heavily upon Alderman’s case.
Eros LLC v Catteneo
Near the weekend of July 4th, 2007, Alderman’s company Eros LL filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against a Second Life avatar named “Volkov Catteno”, temporarily named “John Doe” in court documents, for copying and reselling his virtual SexGen beds. Through several subpoenas served to Linden Lab, Paypal, AT&T and Charter Communications, “Volkov Catteno” was named to be Robert Leatherwood of Azle Texas.
Leatherwood did not respond to the copyright infringement complaint within the allotted 20 days, during which time Alderman was able to persuade the court that selling virtual goods for Lindens, a convertible digital currency, does constitute a “use in commerce”. A default judgment was entered against Leatherwood pursuant to Chapter VII of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The international legal community characterized this lawsuit as an “Avatar vs. Avatar” litigation, with far-reaching implications in applying copyright law to virtual goods.
Eros LLC v Kenzo
Later that same year in October of 2007, Alderman spearheaded a six-person lawsuit against New York native Thomas Simon (aka “Raze Kenzo” in Second Life) for unauthorized copying, resale, and general distribution of the multi-platintiff’s intellectual properties. Simon was duplicating and reselling various types of content from several different Second Life content creators.
The Honorable Judge Townes from the East District of New York specified the cases’ settlement to include the stipulations that Simon pay any monetary gain back to the plaintiffs, that he make his PayPal and Second Life transaction logs available to the plaintiff’s attorney, and that Simon will notify the plaintiffs of any new alternate names or accounts he uses in the virtual world of Second Life. This lawsuit and settlement represents the first collaborative effort of content creators against copyright infringement of virtual world property.
Linden Lab is taking its Viewer application of its popular online world Second Life open-source in order to push development.
Second Life has become a high-profile example of the growing interest in participating in online worlds, yet with a development team of 50 or so programmers, there is pressure to expand and secure the platform.
The source code will be licensed under the GNU General Public Licence version 2. A controversial third version will be announced later this month, although it’s unclear whether Linden Lab will adopt this.
The licence allows other developers to view, modify and distribute those modifications. What this means for Second Life is that developers could use this code to create their own viewer software, or participate in Linden Lab projects to improve Second Life.
However, the company says that while it will thoroughly test and support third-party code that is implemented in its own Viewer application, third-party code such as alternative viewers, will not be supported by the company.
The initial projects are likely to focus on bug fixes, improvements to compatibility with less common hardware configurations, such as older computers; support for additional multimedia types; User Interface changes; and potentially new look and feel ‘skins’ for the Viewer itself. Timeframes for these enhancements will vary depending on the scale of the project and project team.
Philip Rosedale, CEO and founder of Linden Lab, told AP that there might be other ways to interact with the game other than mouse and keyboard – such as gaze detection – to help the many disabled people who use Second Life.
‘We feel we have a responsibility to improve and to grow Second Life as rapidly as possible,’ said Rosedale. ‘We were the first virtual world to enable content creators to own the rights to the Intellectual Property they create. That sparked exponential growth in the richness of the Second Life environment. Now we’re placing the Viewer’s development into the hands of Residents and developers as well. This extends the control Residents can have over the Second Life experience and allows a worldwide community to examine, validate and improve the software’s sophistication and capabilities.’
Cory Ondrejka, CTO of Linden Lab, said: ‘Second Life has the most creative and talented group of users ever assembled and it is time to allow them to contribute to the Viewer’s development. We will still continue Viewer development ourselves, but now the community can add its contributions, insights, and experiences as well. We don’t know exactly which projects will emerge – but this is part of the vibrancy that makes Second Life so compelling.’
Open sourcing of Second Life’s code has led to dozens of projects which have enriched the virtual world experience for countless users, most notably OpenSim and the Firestorm viewer.
9. Voice Chat (2007 to Present)
On August 2nd, 2007, Linden Lab released a new viewer with in-world voice chat capabilities (source: History of Second Life).
10. WindLight (2007 to Present)
On May 21, the WindLight atmospheric rendering was announced. WindLight is the codename for Second Life’s atmospheric rendering system that enhances skies, lighting, water, and other graphical aspects of the environment. (Source: History of Second Life)
11. The Banning of Ad Farms (2008)
On Feb. 14th, 2008, Linden Lab finally decided to ban “ad farms,” the small plots of land with gaudy advertisements that are designed to annoy and extort neighbouring landowners. Anna Avalanche reported:
“Whilst advertising in itself is okay, where it crosses the line into harassing behavior or visual spam, where the intent is purely to compel another resident to pay an unreasonable price to restore their view – then this will be covered under Harassment in our Community Standards,” Jack Linden wrote in a blog post.
“It will obviously be difficult for us to define exactly where example A is an abuse issue as compared to example B where it is not,” he added. “‘Ad Farm’ will apply specifically to advertising or content that is intended solely to drive an unreasonable price for the parcel it is on, usually by spoiling the view of others.”
12. Bay City and the Linden Department of Public Works or “Moles” (2008 to Present)
Bay City, one of Linden Lab’s first planned neighbourhoods, with a mid-century (circa 1950s) theme, was launched in 2008. It was the first project of the Linden Department of Public Works, commonly known as the Moles:
The Linden Department of Public Works (LDPW) is a program focused on improvements related to the experience of living on, or visiting the Linden Mainland. The LDPW will organize teams of Resident builders, artists, and scripters (the Moles!) to create new content on Linden Lab’s behalf and to the benefit of all. Rather than divert company resources from areas of development that contribute to important issues like stability and usability, Linden Lab is choosing to go to the experts…
It should be no surprise that when it comes to creating compelling SL content, it’s the Resident population itself that serves as the best talent pool. In order to hit the ground running, the LDPW has approached a number of content creators whose credentials are well-established, but from the start, its intentions were to make application to the program open to all residents. So if you’re a skilled content creator, please consider applying when the application process is open!
The Blake Sea, dotted with islands and a virtual paradise for sailors, was the first private-public partnership in Second Life, in early 2009 (Source: the Blake Sea article on the Second Life Wiki).
14. Second Life Marketplace (2009 to Present)
On January 20th. 2009, Linden Lab announced that it acquired the SL online marketplaces OnRez and XStreet SL (formerly SL Exchange) in order to merge and integrate them into a web shopping service for virtual goods that would become known as the Second Life Marketplace (source: History of Second Life).
The Second Life Marketplace has been a phenomenal success over the years, with millions of items available for sale.
15. The Linden Endowment for the Arts (2010?-Present)
FreeWee Ling adds in a comment to this blogpost:
I would add the establishment of the Linden Endowment for the Arts. I don’t recall the exact year — 2010 or 2011 I think. A committee was established to manage some 29 sims on behalf of creative artists in SL. In addition to a few committed sims, including a sandbox and a one dedicated to public-access movie sets, the vast majority are available for 6 month residencies by artists via an application process. Much of the art created on the LEA sims has been among the most interesting experimental work anywhere in SL.
16. Avatar Physics (2011 to Present)
Linden Lab introduced avatar physics to Second Life back in 2011, thus allowing for what some people see as a more natural movement of parts of the body such as breasts.
17. The Advent of Mesh (2011 to Present)
Mesh refers to the ability for users to create polygon mesh objects using suitable 3D rendering tools (e.g. Blender, Maya, 3ds Max) and then import them into Second Life for general use. This was introduced to Second Life in 2011, and it has had a significant impact on the platform. to the extent that many avatars have mesh heads and bodies now, as well as mesh clothing, hair and shoes.
Materialsis a texture property, describing how light from nearby sources reflects off of surfaces. Creators in SL have only had very rudimentary control over reflectivity until very recently. Now that they have new tools, it is suddenly quite easy to make metallic surfaces look metallic, gravelly surfaces look gravelly, and snow look granular or fluffy. It doesn’t make any difference whether an object is a mesh object created by some external tool or whether it is made of SL’s native prims (which are also mesh, anyway). You can apply materials to any surface. To see the effects of materials on surfaces in SL, you have to be able to enable Advanced Lighting, which again has only recently been available to residents with fairly high-end computers. Take a look at http://community.secondlife.com/t5/English-Knowledge-Base/Materials-Normal-and-Specular-Mapping/ta-p/2034625 for a general description of materials mapping.
We are introducing extensions to the standard Second Life Avatar Skeleton that give you dozens of new bones to support both rigging and animation, and accompanying new attachment points! This extended skeleton, which is fully backward compatible with existing avatars, rigging and animation, gives creators the power to build more sophisticated avatars than ever before. The skeleton extensions include:
11 extra limb bones for wings, additional arms, or extra legs.
6 tail bones
30 bones in the hands (all 10 fingers!)
30 bones for facial expressions
2 other new bones in the head for animating ears or antennae
13 new attachment points associated with the new bones
20. Second Life’s Extraordinary Longevity on its Fifteenth Anniversary (2018)
The fact that Second Life has endured for over 15 years now is a testament to the initial vision of its creator, Philip Rosedale, and to all the employees at Linden Lab who have worked tirelessly on his project over the past decade-and-a-half.
But the biggest reason for SL’s successful longevity is, without a doubt, its users and creators. These are the people whose vision, drive, persistence, imagination, and creativity have made Second Life what it is today, and why it is still going strong after 15 years.
Have I missed any successes that you feel should be on this list? Please send me a comment on this blogpost, thanks!
And I want to follow up on yesterday’s question with another one: In your opinion, what have been the biggest successes in the 15-year history of Second Life? Things that we should celebrate, that were accomplished either by Linden Lab or by the users?